Group searches for strategy to keep bison within conservation boundary |

Group searches for strategy to keep bison within conservation boundary

Carrie Stadheim | For the fence post
Riders sometimes haze bison back into the Yellowstone National Park. Some ranchers worry that with budget problems within the Montana Department of Livestock, hazing will become less of a priority. Photo courtesy National Park Service

Say the word “bison” or “buffalo” in Montana and heads will turn.

The large, roaming ruminants probably won’t notice. They will be grazing. Slowly ambling toward the next meadow.

If they get too far outside of their “designated” areas, they might notice riders horseback, trailing them back toward the park.

Ranchers will tell you of disease and overgrazing issues.

“Yellowstone is overgrazed and has no riparian areas, no deciduous trees, they are so overpopulated that even the pine trees, they’ve eaten them as far as they can stand on their hind feet.”Bob SitzPurebred Angus breeder from Harrison, Mont.

Wildlife advocates say that brucellosis is under control and that bison don’t infect cattle with the bacteria that cause abortions.

Anyone can comment on the proposed Yellowstone-Area Bison Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement through June 15.

There are six alternatives within the proposal. Rick Wallen, Yellowstone wildlife biologist, and team leader for the Bison Ecology and Management Program, who helped write the proposal, said each of the alternatives is meant to represent a group of stakeholders.

Wallen said Native Americans favor very little intervention in the bison populations. That option is alternative two and would allow bison numbers to possibly increase to about 7,500. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 head in the park now.

Other alternatives suggest varying degrees of bison management including hazing back to the park, physical separation between livestock and bison, population control, brucellosis vaccination, and other strategies.



Bob Sitz, a purebred Angus breeder from Harrison, Mont., said that earlier state management strategies of “test and slaughter” were more rancher friendly and were successful in minimizing the spread of brucellosis, a major concern with the Yellowstone-area bison.

“When they came out of the park, all bison were tested. The ones that were clean were left to wander, the ones that were infected were slaughtered,” he said

Sitz said his state’s administration at the time was focused on eliminating brucellosis.

During the 1960s when the bison corrals in the park were being used to test and then slaughter infected animals, an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service official told him they were within two years of eradicating the disease but administrations and wildlife management strategies changed, and with free-roaming, untested bison, the disease continues to flourish.

Because he ranches within the state’s Designated Surveillance Area, today Sitz is required to test all cattle before they leave the surveillance area, whether for summer grazing or because they were sold.

Brucellosis has been expensive. While there has been some reimbursement for testing – about $10 per head – the cost to test is much higher, especially when labor and fuel are included.

“Since the early 1900s, we in the livestock industry have spent over a billion dollars in trying to deal with ungulate fever and brucellosis. They spent millions vaccinating cattle and eradicated it across the country and now we are down to one area. Yellowstone is the only reservoir of brucellosis,” Sitz said.

Chuck Storey of Storey Hereford Ranch west of Bozeman is also within a DSA. He wants the buffalo to stay within the park in order to mitigate disease spread. He worries about the state losing its “brucellosis-free” status.

“We’ve lost it before. We had to blood test to send cattle out of state,” he said, explaining that it was actually less restrictive than living within the DSA.

Montana’s state veterinarian, Dr. Marty Zaluski, doesn’t expect their status to change.

“I don’t envision that the state will lose its brucellosis-free status. One condition under which we keep it is that if we have a reservoir of brucellosis, they have to establish a management area. The DSA is doing what it is intended to do,” Zaluski said.

Jordan, Mont., area farmer and rancher Brett Dailey said to lose the brucellosis-free status would be devastating.

Wallen said there is no record of transmission of brucellosis from bison to livestock.

“The reason is that we have a risk-management strategy in place. It includes drawing of a conservation boundary where we want to manage wild bison and articulating that bison shouldn’t go beyond that boundary until we can further resolve conflicts with agriculture,” he said.

The boundary is “just a line drawn on a map,” Wallen said, but hunting of just a few bison that wander past the border helps keep them in their designated area, he said.

Herding larger numbers with riders or the occasional helicopter in rough terrain is the strategy to keep them from livestock and in their proper range, he added.

Wallen said agreements with six Native American tribes help keep bison from migrating out of their zones.

Money is the root of any decision that is made, Sitz said, and with the state department of livestock in a difficult financial position, he worries that possibly infected bison will roam free.

“Now things are going to change because they are hurting financially. We aren’t going to have (state-financed) hazers to haze them back and you don’t have test and slaughter,” he said.

Sitz said cattle are contracting brucellosis occasionally.

“You do have a case here and there but the state is getting by with it because we have all this surveillance. But once they run out of money who does the surveillance?” Sitz asked.

While he acknowledges that some blame elk, not bison for the spread of brucellosis to cattle, Sitz said it originates in the bison. The most important step in wiping out the disease is eliminating it in bison, he said.

The proposed bison management plan is not the appropriate avenue for addressing brucellosis concerns, Wallen said. He supports a separate disease management plan for elk and bison should be implemented.

Wallen said attempting to eliminate brucellosis by vaccinating bison is not fiscally responsible.

“The vast majority of risk in livestock encounters is in wild elk. We think that the alternative of eliminating brucellosis from wild bison boils down to eliminating bison from the landscape. We aren’t willing to do that,” Wallen said.

Zaluski explained that any vaccination program doesn’t prevent the disease but rather keeps cows from aborting, which lessens the spread of the disease. When an infected cow aborts, her curious herdmates tend to smell and lick the fetus and afterbirth, coming in contact with the bacteria. When an infected cow carries a calf full term, she is likely calving with the rest of the herd, so her calf and afterbirth don’t create as much interest and therefore don’t infect as many other cows.


Sitz doesn’t believe that enough forage exists in the park to feed the current bison population.

“Yellowstone is overgrazed and has no riparian areas, no deciduous trees. They are so overpopulated that even the pine trees, they’ve eaten them as far as they can stand on their hind feet,” he said.

Allowing bison numbers to increase requires more feed, and means more destruction – outside of the park, Sitz said, pointing to a number of ranchers who were “basically forced” off of grazing permits outside of the park where bison now often graze. The same strict range conditions the cattle ranchers had to meet should also be required of bison, he said.

Bison will follow the river bottoms right into existing grazing permits and private property, he said.

“If they go into existing forest permits and the riparian areas get bad, who gets the boot? The cattle rancher or the bison?” he said.

Zaluski’s agency is going to wait and see what the public scoping process yields before taking a stand on any one alternative. He strongly urges the park to keep bison numbers at the agreed-upon target of around 3,000 animals.

“All participating agencies should do what they can to hold that level,” Zaluski said.

A “bison management” tab on the National Park Service’s website explains: “While the (2000 Interagency Bison Management) plan calls for a target population of around 3,000 animals, the size of the herd and the level of tolerance outside the park are two issues often debated by the IBMP partners and their constituents.”

Wallen said the agreement wasn’t necessarily to keep bison numbers below 3,000 but rather to give his agency discretion when removing animals if numbers get above 3,000, and to allow only infected bison to be removed if numbers are below target.

While he plans to comment on the plan, Sitz doesn’t believe it will make a difference.

“We will send comments but it is a dog and pony show. They are going to do it. They aren’t going to be held accountable to any grazing standards,” Sitz said.

Dailey, a Montana Farmers Union Board member, who lives near the C.M. Russell Game Refuge said that while there is no official document calling for it, signs are pointing to an introduction of bison in the refuge. He worries about disease, fence damage and danger to humans. “They are a dangerous animal. I’ve owned them. They are not caged in very well,” he said.

While elk, deer and antelope can be fenced out of a haystack or pasture, bison cannot, Dailey said. And a bison herd tends to remain tightly grouped and graze intensely.

“They basically destroy where they are,” Dailey said. “It is not the problem of Montana producers that the park isn’t big enough to run their buffalo.”

The Yellowstone bison are considered by some to be a unique species or subspecies and Dailey is concerned that a 150 or 200 of them will be re-located to the refuge, and will then be placed on the Endangered Species List.

Dailey hopes to see the state gain authority over the bison.

Wallen said even if bison are moved into the game refuge, brucellosis shouldn’t be a problem.

“They have asked for Yellowstone bison that have been through a quarantine protocol … so I don’t see brucellosis as being an issue in that part of the state,” he said.

There has never been any intent to make the bison range any bigger than “Yellowstone and a couple of small valleys,” Wallen said. “If there is any expansion it would be a decision by the state of Montana. They currently have one on the table.”

But Wallen said he doesn’t know how soon it will be decided upon. It would add another “small valley” near Yellowstone to the designated bison range.

Sitz points out that it was ranchers who originally saved the bison from extinction and he said he still enjoys wildlife, including the continent’s largest mammal.

“They just need to be managed. This problem is caused by no management,” he said.

Storey isn’t optimistic that the bison population will be kept in the park or in designated areas, or that the voices of ranchers will be taken into consideration.

“It’s like sweeping the ocean back with a broom,” he said. ❖